New York of the famous Awakening in New York poem

Analysis of Maya Angelou’s Awaking in New York Poem

New York of the famous Awakening in New York poem

Times Square in New York, the City of Maya Angelou’s poem.

The poem “Awakening in New York” was written by Maya Angelou. She has been a personal hero to me, and I wrote a tribute to Maya after she passed away May 28, 2014 that you may remember. Her writing resonates within me, and that is why I enjoy reading and rereading poems written by her. The poem “Awakening in New York” is one example.

At the surface level, this poem is about waking up in the morning somewhere within the city of New York. However, there are deeper concepts to explore, such as the emotions felt by the narrator toward his or her self and the city. “Awaking in New York” (find the full text here at the Poetry Foundation) is told in the first-person narrative of “I.” It is never explained to the reader within the poem whether “I” is a male or female.

The imagery of the short poem is creatively done, beginning with first two lines:

Curtains forcing their will

against the wind

I take these lines to be a clever way to describe the loud bellowing of the wind as it blows into a room and moves curtains, with the curtains thudding against walls. The wind represents the turbulence the narrator feels from within. That feeling of inner conflict is explored throughout the one-verse poem that is 11 lines in length.

The turbulent self is described again with the lines:

I, an alarm, awake as a

rumor of war

Here, poet Maya Angelou compares the self to an alarm, which indicates the self follows routines, and that waking up to start a day is one of those routines. The word alarm is an interesting one, a deliberate word she chose to use here. After all, an alarm is a piece of technology without a tangent emotional connection. Angelou uses the word alarm to explain that the narrator feels empty and void of positive emotion.

When the narrator or “I” of the poem compares himself or herself to a “rumor of war,” this expression is telling of the past conflict in life that the narrator has experienced. That person is  now the product of difficult times. Those “wars” have created the void discussed in the prior line.

There is also reference within “Awakening in New York” to children sleeping. The lines read:

exchanging dreams with

seraphim

While the children dream of seraphim, which are fairies like those described in the Old Testament, the narrator does not describe himself or herself with the same happy regard. Fairies are associated with children while an alarm and crashing curtains are the world of the narrator. Perhaps Maya Angelou is explaining that the “I” voice wishes to return to the innocence that is often connected with being a child.

The “I” of the poem also feels unwanted. While the city of New York awakens or begins its busy day, “I”:

lie stretching into dawn,

unasked and unheeded.

These are the two final lines of Maya Angelou’s poem. The narrator awakens in the morning yet does not feel like participating in the events that day. Feelings of neglect and the uselessness of self are conveyed here.

Maya Angelou has explained so much about a person who is feeling disengaged from life, even within what is arguably the most exciting place to be in the US, which is the city of New York. The narrator has a turbulent past, perhaps wishes to return to a state of innocence, and feels useless within New York. Huge concepts are presented in an original manner within the poem “Awaking in New York.”

Aside from being well-known as an American poet, Maya Angelou has also composed several autobiographical written pieces and gave several inspirational lectures. She is much appreciated as a speaker for Black people and female empowerment.
 
 
©2015 Christy Birmingham

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88 thoughts on “Analysis of Maya Angelou’s Awaking in New York Poem

  1. Maria F.

    It is certainly revealing for me Christy, as I wrote a poem of a male character, using the “I”. I wondered afterwards whether I did the right thing. Then I realized there was simply no other way of doing it, as I thought I needed to feel the same pain the character felt, regardless of gender. You now make me feel it was okay to do it.

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  2. gertloveday

    Thanks for this Christy. I’d like to see more bloggers analysing the work of their favourite poets in terms that are accessible to readers who are not poets. Too many people are scared of poetry because they think they don’t understand it!

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      1. traceymoonsparkle

        Isn’t it exciting when that happens?! I still quietly weep when I read her gorgeous gem’s and the sound of her voice…oh my star’s!…I couldn’t even blink or inhale. I wish she could of lived forever…

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  3. Rajagopal

    Maya Angelou… Maya is a typical Indian name for a woman, maya means illusion in Sanskrit (it is fascinating how the name maya carried to the west and the Americas, we will research on that later). My first date with Maya started a few a years ago when I got to read the ‘caged bird’ and thereafter virtually lapped up many of her poems. A truly ‘phenomenal woman’ in every sense of the term, Maya Angelou is like the glistening dew in a dawn-bright lawn, a lotus flower in the muddy pond of racialism and the most lustrous star in the firmament of contemporary American literature. I fondly recall your earlier tribute at her passing away last year, and appreciate your analysis of her poem, Christy, as maya is so very inspiring and her poems are bound to remain as such for generations of readers…Raj.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Raj, I didn’t know her name means ‘illusion’ but that makes sense, doesn’t it, as she seems so close yet so far in many respects… Thank you for telling me that! As for your interpretation of her as the lustrous star, absolutely! She continues to shine brightly amongst us with her neverending spirit and I feel it each time I read (reread) her works. Many hugs to you for the beautiful comment to Maya that I am blessed to have here.

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  4. yprior1

    Christie _ I cannot even tell you how much I enjoyed this poem – partly because I posted about new york earlier today – but also because I completely love when some one breaks down a poem like this – I learn so much and I am bookmarking to come back again, I only skimmed it and I will be back! I also linked this on my blog too – with the NYC post – thanks for this and cheers!

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      1. yprior1

        indeed – they do think alike – ha!
        and I also like how our posts are so different – and when people like you break down a poem like this – it gives us more to ponder and feel from the work –

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  5. johngevans13

    It is an amazingly wonderful thing to be able to analyze a composition from such a legacy as Maya Angelou, and you did a splendid job Christy! Poetry, as we all know is a language all its own and to try and analyze a piece is often times the fun part. We explore our inner depths as we read and understand even our own complex lives a measure better. Great work Christy, hats off to you! (Hugs).

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      It really is interesting to try to imagine what the poet has been thinking during the writing of the lines… and I know you enjoy doing this too, John. Thanks, my poet friend, for being a great writer who enjoyed this post! Hugs

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  6. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez

    You have good insights on Maya Angelou’s writings. My daughter Chelsey was my introduction to her works even though I had read or listened to her. She was brutally honest in the most subtle of words. Her death was not welcomed by our household for certain.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Hi Jackie, Thanks for stopping by and for offering your personal experiences with Maya’s work. Your comment makes me realize that she impacted people of all ages, from your daughter to senior citizens. What a great talent, who left us too soon.

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  7. Heartafire

    A fabulous critique of this poem, I too am a fan of Maya’s poetry, My favorite poem of hers is “Caged Bird” ; some one once recited the lines “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of thing unknown but longed for still” …oh, it went right to the heart. What an awesome poetess this lady was! thank you for bringing her to us!

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Hi Michelle, I appreciate you adding in the link and for explaining more about her to any readers who do not already know a lot about her life. I think she was an angel who spread her wings to selflessly help others. Thank you for taking time here xo

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  8. Dave Small

    I enjoyed the analysis Christy.

    These are “huge concepts”: “feeling disengaged from life, even within what is arguably the most exciting place to be in the US”. I also find the connection of a “turbulent past”, wishing to return to a “state of innocence”, and feeling “useless” insightful.

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  9. Dionne

    That was an analysis that really only scratched the surface. Im from New York and I actually noticed this poem on the subway at 4:30 am on my way to work last week. IT WAS EXACTLY HOW I FELT!! It perfectly describes waking up with a start and associating yourself back into this world after being stirred from sleep. Lyrically, its like freshly opened eyes, coming into focus. “Curtains forcing their will” as though it is against the wind, puts the emphasis on the curtains as the subject, not the wind. “I take these lines to be a clever way to describe the loud bellowing of the wind as it blows into a room and moves curtains.” The curtains are the subject and they are trying to fight to remain still. Ms Angelou used the preposition “against”. With that word choice, I believe shes trying paint her room as a protected space. We all feel a little confusion and vulnerability at first wake…on that day Angelou wished someone/something could fight the noise/disruption of sleep/peace.

    “I, an alarm, awake as a rumor of war.” When a person is totally vulnerable, that is when they are also at reactionary or as a predator and without thinking about it, we dont realize in those couple seconds of us opening our eyes, there is a fight. There is a fight to distinguish what’s real, what you want…what you want to do, what you did yesterday, what you MUST do today, coming to terms with the fact that about 8 billion other lives were doing other things like “exchanging dreams with seraphim” – it is about lovely, innocent things… as through first thought that brings hope in her day. Just that thought. She “lie[s] stretching into dawn”, describes her body parallel with earth (still in bed), greeting the sun.

    When you wake up with a start, that confusion can turn into anger, worry, and any other kind of emotional alarm, youre trying to focus on what it is that woke you…where is it?! Damned curtains!!! and in that moment you realize it’s ok. Im awake now and I can relax. Nobody needs me right now, “unasked- not asked”, YET also “unheeded- heard or noticed but disregarded.”

    Why unheeded? You’re right in pointing out that while the children dream of seraphim, that is about fairies like that in the Old Testament. But the narrator doesn’t have the same self regard.

    Recalling the want to return to innocence, even conjuring up the image of innocence at first light/thought is inspiring and she feels motivated to do something, motivated like hell, she described herself as an “alarm” and “rumor of war”. “Rumor” is awesomely used here to illustrate that she hasn’t even gotten her feet on the ground yet, and theres a fire burning, she’s already warning-worthy!

    “Unasked” gives Angelou some peace at first but then she starts to notice the silences…these days its the equivalent of thinking you overslept, checking the time and realizing you woke up early. You check your phone to see if you need to respond to an email or a text message or a call you got while you were sleeping….and wait…theres nothing there. Then, we’d start to think, why has no one messaged me?…your attitude goes from “thank god no one’s bothering me” to “wait WHY is no one bothering me?!” She started to feel “unheeded” and disregarded. Meanwhile, the same New York winds (meant in a figurative sense) are waking everyone else up. You can start to hear the people talking on the streets, cars driving by, life’s happening, she’s got so much potential, she woke up with a fire in her belly, but feels she cannot find a place or a person to focus her energy on, because no one has called for her.

    Its an interesting poem and I think it’s stayed on my mind since last week because of its rawness and vulnerability…(and the fact, I miss her too). I know her to be one of the strongest black women I have never met. In this poem, she showed me that there is vulnerability in strength and there must always be…to keep us pushing, to keep us fighting to do more than just survive. Its a poem that shows us the moment before ambition arises, these are the questions we must ask ourselves, the truths we must confront in ourselves…that some of us need people to need us to feel valued and in some fragile moments, it’s possible, for even someone so strong like Angelou, to feel as though she’s a silently fallen tree, unheard and neglected in the forest.

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  10. irinadim

    Wow, I’ve got two analyses for the price of one! 🙂 Christy, I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. Dionne’s analysis is also very interesting. Thank you to both, I understand this poem much better now.

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  11. JcCee

    Hey Christy,
    I found your blog through Austin’s blog party and I am glad that I did. I enjoyed your analysis on this poem. You really have helped me with seeing a meaning behind it. It is my pleasure to follow your blog. I am looking forward to your thoughts! 🙂

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